What Suffering Taught Me
Originally written & published on July 15, 2009 at 5:33pm.
It’s important for me to repost this. It’s more than six years old, but relevant in the context of what I plan to share in the coming weeks. I hope that you are encouraged. Love you guys.
Do you ever have moments that have been permanently engrained in your memory, but you’re not sure why? I have one of those I’d like to share. About three years ago, I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, living with my roommate in a nice little house, having the time of my life. I was attending a church that I really enjoyed. I had a “stable”, full-time job in a nearby hospital, family and friends that I loved. (Insert memory.)
I was driving home down Lancaster highway after a full day at work in the operating room in my nice little VW Passat. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, breeze blowing, music playing on the radio. And a thought went through my mind. “I will never be one of those people who struggle, just barely getting by. I have a Bachelor’s degree, a good job, a technical degree in the medical field, a great church, family and friends who love me, a nice car, a nice house…. Besides, the Lord loves me and He would never let that happen to me.” Just as these thoughts were tracking through my brain, it was as if time slowed down to record my thoughts and attitude at that moment. Something in my heart knew that something was wrong. But, all that I had been taught about faith told me that my faith was somehow making me exempt from hardship. (Isn’t that somewhere in the Bible? “wink-wink”)
I really did forget about that moment once it passed. It wasn’t until the very things that I thought would NEVER happen to me actually happened to me that I remembered it. Standing in my Charlotte apartment kitchen two years later, without a job, married with a newborn baby, in the greatest physical pain I’ve ever endured (from a Cesarean section surgery to deliver my son), feeling alone and forgotten, struggling to get by, to pay bills, to buy food, that I remembered these thoughts I had on that day. “How could this happen to me?,” my heart was crying out for real answers.
(There have to be more and more people who can relate to this given the state of our economy.)
What do you do in moments like that? I felt embarrassed and ashamed to tell people what we were going through. What is our fault? What had we done wrong? When I saw people in public, at church, in social situations, they would ask us, “how are you doing?” I felt that I had little to say. And, when I did tell them a little bit about our situation, I could often see that glazed look in their eyes which told me that the truth was uncomfortable, and that, even though they may have wanted to be able to relate, that they really couldn’t. At the time in my life when I needed people the most, they were the furthest away from me.
Enter Job, a guy whose story was told in the Bible. Basically, he was very well off, and lost everything he had that was of any value to him. And, he did not know why. Satan approached the Lord, and the Lord told him, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless- a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.” Satan replied, saying, “Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is! But reach out and take everything he has, and he will surely curse your face!” “All right, you may test him. Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” So, Satan was permitted to test Job and take away everything he posessed.
Then, Job proceeded to lose everything that was of any value to him. He was deeply grieved, but “in all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God.” Although, he questioned what was happening to him, he never let his heart become filled with bitterness and he never turned his back on God. His friends really couldn’t relate to what had happened to him. How could they? They’d never been through what he was experiencing. (Ever been there?) Worst of all, in the end, his friends started to blame him for what had happened. “Job must have done something to deserve this,” they thought out loud. Their words came out of their own misunderstanding. He was pierced through by their words, and miserable. I can relate to this man. Have you ever grieved the loss of things that were of the greatest importance to you, only to have some around you misunderstand and judge you? Well, read about Job. You’ll likely be able to identify with him (and with me).
Throughout all of our hardship, my husband, Justin, continued to encourage me to go to the Lord, to draw close to Him, spend time with Him, pray, read my Bible, sit with Him. I felt so distant from the Lord, though. My disappointment and grief felt like a impenetrable brick wall between me and God. I was numb. And, the numbness, though cathartic, scared me. Although our friends and family, for the most part, felt so distant from us, we reminded each other that the Lord knew. We kept reminding each other about all of the awesome things that the Lord had done for us, helping each other not to forget. We knew the Lord. We were confident of that. He loved us. We knew that, too. He is always good. I knew that, but I wasn’t feelin’ it.
It’s embarrassing to suffer financially in our culture. Americans (Christian and non-Christian alike) can tend to find and assess so much identity and value to things like their jobs, their friends, who they know, their social circles, their church, their ability to purchase things, how they look, their lack of debt and how “together” they are financially. When those things are lost or diminished in your life, it can leave you devastated. In every way that I found identity or importance in any of those things, I felt great loss and grief when they weren’t there anymore. Although I had thought that I had found my identity fully in God, who unconditionally and fully loved me, despite having or not having these things, the pain I felt when I lost them told me a very different story. How could I have put so much importance in so many things that had little to do with the worth of a person, that were so superficial?
Jesus said, “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.” (Matthew 10:38-39, the Message translation) To the degree that I had not gone all the way with Jesus, and given myself fully over to Him, I was in pain. Jesus didn’t hurt me. I was hurting because those temporal comforts and supports were now gone. I needed to lose myself fully in Him. I needed to truly make Him first in every way.
There is a sadness we feel when we experience loss, but then there is a profound grieving,tearing even, that we suffer when something deep within us had at one time become intimately connected to that thing or person from which we have been recently disconnected. I was deeply grieving. Until I experienced the loss of these things that were once so important to me, I had no idea how much value I had put on them. I found myself losing my identity. “Who am I?,” I asked. I was hurt and confused. Justin replied, “you must find your identity in the Lord.” “I thought I had done that!, ” I cried, though at this point it had become increasingly apparent that I had not.
Jesus told his disciples,” In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” It’s not that we won’t have “trouble”, as some people propogandize. Yet, how do we respond when trouble comes? Will we stand firmly in our faith and in who God is and what He says? Will we look to Him? To the degree that our foundation is built on anything other than the Lord, we will be shaken. But, if this happens to you, I encourage you to adopt the attitude that I eventually did. Give up holding on to that which you are grieving over and let go of clinging to those superficial things in which you may have placed so much importance. Let them be shaken from your foundation and seek His face and His kingdom. Choose to put Him in their place. He will meet you there! “When you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes.” (Jeremiah 29:13-14)
Just what are we truly seeking after? The approval of man? Financial security? Popularity? Acceptance? Good looks? These things come and go. “These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:32-34) We often seek after many things that we think we need or actually do need. Ironically, He loves us so much, that if we will put Him first, rather than the pursuit of meeting these needs, He will give us everything.
As 2008 was drawing to a close, Justin and I continued to seek the Lord and ask Him for wisdom as to what we as a family needed to pursue. We had honestly exhausted all of our known options. What next?
One evening in December, I went to church and ran into an old friend who had some encouraging things to say that were definitely from the Lord’s heart for us. Without having known much about what we had endured other than the basics, he told me, “There are people who are offended by your lives, by what you have been going through. They have looked at you guys and judged you, but one day, they will be convicted of how they wrongly judged you, will repent, and will actually become free themselves.” It felt good to know that my friend understood something that I thought few did. The Lord was telling us that He understood. He understood what we felt and what others were thiking and feeling. Our situation was not one that we were proud of, but the Lord knew that, like Job, what had happened to us what not our fault. It gave me such peace and hope. Though some may wrongly judge our situation, even misunderstand, God knew.
At the end of 2008, the Lord gave us an opportunity to move to Colorado Springs and start over. We had no money to pay for such a move. I applied for jobs and no one called me back for an interview. “Should we move to Colorado?”, we asked each other. No answer. Then, one day, the Lord asked me, “Would you be willing to move to Colorado without the promise of a job?” “What? What are you saying? Are you asking me to trust You to move out to Colorado, even without a job?” (That was the obvious answer.)
Justin and I prayed, “Lord, we trust you and we need a certain amount of money to move out there. If you help us, we will go.” Then after months of barely getting by, money started flowing in. More than enough to make the move possible. After months of not being able to get work, Justin was given an opportunity to do a paint job for someone. Friends called to tell us they were sending us money. The support we received was unprecedented. We were so overwhelmed and encouraged by what the Lord was doing for us. And, on January 1st, 2009, with pockets full of more money than we had seen in months, and the love and support of friends and family, we packed up a moving truck with everything we owned and drove to Colorado Springs, where, with the Lord’s help, we currently live and are rebuilding our lives from the ground up.
A Great Gift
The Lord is in the process of fully restoring us. And, through it all, there is something that I have gained that is greater than anything that I once lost. I was graciously stripped of crutches and idols in my heart, things that filled my heart in places where the Lord belonged and deserved to reside. My security, my value, my identity is no longer defined by a successful medical career, having a good reputation, what church I attend, who I know, who knows me, how I look, how much people like me, how much money I have in my bank account or the status of my debt. Those things can change in a moment, whether or not we want them to change. Rather, my identity is found in the Lord, who bought me at a great price and loves me when everything goes wrong, when I’m not much fun or popular to be around, and when I am truly alone. He has never left me or withheld His love for me. Being more fully convinced of who He is, and who I am in Him, that is a gift that cannot be bought with money or fame.
My prayer for many years has been, “Lord, whatever it takes, I want to be closer to you. I want everything removed from my heart and life that prevents me from coming closer to you and knowing and loving you more.” And, this process graciously and lovingly has accomplished much of this in my life. Do you see how everything really does work together for our good, for those of us who love Him? Ultimately, He knows the conditions of our hearts, what our minds and goals are set on, and what we truly desire. He really does want to give us what our hearts truly long for- closeness with the One who loves us the most. And, if we will allow Him to, He will draw us closer, working through a great variety of situations, for our good.
In the last chapter of the book of Job, he tells the Lord, “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you….I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.” How profound is that! Through all his suffering, he grew to know the Lord, and said, “I have seen you with my own eyes!”
Then, the Lord spoke to Job’s friends, saying, “I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken accurately about me, as my servant Job has. So take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer on your behalf.” When Job prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes. In fact, the Lord gave him twice as much as before! (Job 42)
Job prayed for the very people who had cursed him and discouraged him during the most difficult losses that he had ever experienced. What’s more, as a result, the Lord restored Job to double of what he had before!
When you go through difficulty, sometimes you want so much for the people around you to understand or to relate to your experience. And, when they misunderstand or even seem to dismiss your suffering, it can add insult to injury. But, if you will allow the Lord to help you, He will fashion within your heart an increased capacity for loving and understanding others when they suffer similarly. Never again, with the Lord’s help, will Justin and I be able to turn a blind eye to the needs of others, or dismiss their suffering. Having needed so desperately ourselves, we more strongly identify with the needs of others and even share more of the Lord’s compassion for others who find themselves in similar situations as we have experienced. We more deeply understand the meaning of the passage that says, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25)
There was a time in my life when I pridefully thought that I was exempt from certain kinds of suffering. I now know that this life will present challenges, but our suffering is nothing more than an opportunity to rid our lives of that which steals away our affection in exchange for becoming closer to the Lord, trusting Him, loving Him, and becoming more like Him- ultimately, having what our hearts truly desire.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James